With all the tragic fighting this summer in Gaza, Iraq, the Ukraine, and elsewhere, my literature-obsessed mind began to think about novels referencing wars, lead-ups to wars, and aftermaths of wars.
That mindset also had something to do with reading For Whom the Bell Tolls last week. Ernest Hemingway’s intense novel takes place during the Spanish Civil War, which pitted those loyal to Spain’s democratically elected government against Francisco Franco’s ultimately victorious fascists. (A war my wife’s late father, Robert Cummins, experienced as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.)
Hemingway — who covered the Spanish Civil War as a reporter and was wounded during the earlier World War I — uses For Whom the Bell Tolls to expertly touch on almost everything that makes many war novels riveting: death, injury, fear, courage, exhaustion, coping strategies, smart decisions, dumb decisions, poignant romances that blossom almost instantly, the psychological devastation of some survivors, and more. War novels are almost inherently dramatic, because the characters know they might lose their lives at any moment.
That’s certainly the case with Erich Maria Remarque’s heartbreaking A Time to Love and a Time to Die, in which Elizabeth and soldier Ernst meet during Ernst’s brief furlough and desperately try to condense a lifetime’s worth of a relationship into way too short a time.
Remarque also wrote several other remarkable novels with pre-war, war, and post-war themes — including Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and of course All Quiet on the Western Front. Like Hemingway, Remarque had a visceral sense of war from his own experiences — as a soldier hurt during World War I and as an exile from his native Germany after being vilified by a Nazi regime that later brutally beheaded his sister Elfriede in displaced revenge against Remarque.
The Remarque canon also includes Spark of Life, a superb and sorrowful novel set in a World War II concentration camp — where much of William Styron’s beyond-sad Sophie’s Choice takes place as well.
Another author deeply affected by war was Kurt Vonnegut, whose darkly humorous Slaughterhouse-Five was inspired by the author’s traumatic time as a WWII prisoner. There’s also the satirical masterpiece Catch-22 by WWII bombardier Joseph Heller.
While it certainly helps to have firsthand military knowledge before writing a war novel, some authors manage to create excellent works without that direct experience. They include Stephen Crane, whose The Red Badge of Courage is set in America’s Civil War; and Dalton Trumbo, who depicts the physical devastation of Joe Bonham in his powerful antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. Library research, visiting battlefields after the fact, and interviewing veterans are among the devices that help such authors.
Not surprisingly, fewer women than men write war novels — which reflects, among other things, usually having less combat experience than males (though that’s of course changing these days as more women enter the military). Still, some female authors have written about war and its toll as well or better than men. They include Willa Cather, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours takes place during World War I; and Virginia Woolf, whose Mrs. Dalloway searingly conveys post-war stress via the shell-shocked Septimus Smith character.
Speaking of WWI, Larry Darrell in W. Somerset Maugham’s absorbing The Razor’s Edge becomes a spirituality seeker after a terrible experience during that century-ago carnage.
Many novels feature fictional wars, but the emotions of the characters who fight are much the same as those felt by participants in real wars. Among those books are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (with its dramatic battle at Hogwarts), H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s depiction of warfare in his iconic trilogy was at least partly inspired by World War I experiences that included the almost complete wipe-out of his battalion while the future author was on sick leave.
More examples of real-life conflicts depicted in memorable novels: The Siege of Orleans and other bloody skirmishes in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, The Battle of Bothwell Bridge in Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, The Revolutionary War in Robertson Davies’ Murther & Walking Spirits, the Haitian Revolution in Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising, and South Africa’s anti-apartheid fight in Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story. I haven’t read any Vietnam War novels (yet).
What are your favorite novels, or other literary works, with war themes?
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